It’s been a big year. Covid-19 has impacted everyone in some way, most of us in very significant ways. We all have different circumstances but the one thing we share is that Covid-19 has affected our mental health. For some this has meant feeling lonely, sad or worried at times. These feelings are completely understandable – a lot has changed! When feelings start to get in the way of life, they become problems.
Anxiety is a common mental health problem that people of all ages can experience. If you struggled with anxiety before Covid-19 or if its developed since, this post is for you.
Sometimes we are very aware of what we are feeling and at other times we can be quite disconnected. Anxiety can feel all consuming, and breaking it down can make it feel more manageable.
When we’re feeling anxious emotionally, our body is likely to be reacting physically. This can include tension, palpitations, shakiness, chest tightness, difficulty breathing and stomach ache. It can be subtle or obvious. Being aware of these physical feelings early on can be helpful as it can help you to recognise when anxiety is starting to creep in. Having said that, focusing too much on body sensations can be unhelpful. The key is to notice how you’re feeling, and then to do something about it.
If you’re feeling anxious, first notice your body sensations. Simply consider different parts of your body and how they are feeling. Is there any tension, pain or discomfort? Are you feeling hot, cold or just right? Are you agitated or still?
Now consider your thoughts. What’s going through your head? Are you worrying about something? Is this a worry you’ve had before or a new worry? The pandemic may have sparked worries about friends or family, health, or associated issues such as money, work or isolation. Try to watch your thoughts whizz past rather than getting caught up with them.
Now consider what you’ve been doing. What has prompted this thought or feeling? Is there a pattern? For some people particular places or situations might make them anxious. Maybe going to the shops and navigating social distancing. Or it might be that time when you’re not busy gives your mind time to worry about family members.
Starting to connect feelings, body sensations, thoughts and behaviors can give us clues about what our anxiety looks like. You might find it helpful to write down what you notice. Or just to make a mental note. Once we spot patterns we can get an idea of what is keeping anxiety going, for example some people might notice anxiety creeps in when they put the news on, or when they get their mask on to go in a shop. Understanding and tackling these cycles is the backbone of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a great therapy for anxiety.
Once you know when you’re likely to get anxious, be proactive. Connecting with others can be helpful or sometimes unhelpful. Think about who you have in your life and what role they might play in supporting you. Some people, such as children, can help us out by being a distraction to our worries. Distraction is an underrated tool, which can help in the height of anxiety when focusing on worries is keeping us stuck. Others can help by listening. Or sometimes it can help just to check in with someone and let someone know you’re having a bad day. Most people appreciate honesty. So be brave and share a little more of yourself.
Covid-19 has changed the way we can connect to others. And sometimes physically connecting is not possible. Be creative. Phone, video call, text or write a letter. Alternatively if you can’t identify someone to connect with, perhaps you have a pet that you can share some time with. Or head outside and connect with nature. Being out in nature for even a short time can lower stress and improve your mood.
Anxiety can feel all consuming. And it can thrive in empty spaces, these quiet times in the day when our minds are not occupied with other things. When we’re at home self-isolating there may be more space for worries to creep in.
One way to turn this around is to create. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who famously identified a process called flow.
“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”Csikszentmihalyi, 1990
Engaging in an activity in which you could experience ‘flow’ can help lower the volume of anxiety. Not only can this be a distraction, but finding something that you can enjoy will also boost your mood and resilience. Creative activities such as art, music, building and crafting lend themselves to this. However, flow can be experienced with any activities that captures your attention. You might find that cleaning the kitchen cupboards brings you joy! What will work for one person won’t work for another. So turn to your hobbies or activities you have enjoyed in the past. Consider what works for you, and have these activities ready for when you need them.
There are lots of other strategies that you may find helpful for managing anxiety such as relaxation and mindfulness. When anxiety is really getting in the way of your life though, you may want to move beyond managing it, into getting rid of it entirely. Anxiety is absolutely treatable and is not something that you have to live with. If you are ready to take that step we can help and you may also want to visit your doctor.
Alternatively if you do want to try tackling your anxiety yourself consider what anxiety is stopping you from doing. Are there situations or activities that you avoid? Avoidance is a really common way of coping with anxiety. It makes a lot of sense, but can also keep anxiety going. Growing beyond anxiety will mean gradually challenging yourself by doing these things that you avoid. Start small, and be gentle with yourself. Hope you find this useful. And remember, help is here if you want it.